By Ben Stallings |

August 25-26, 2015, Emporia, Kansas

Gabe Brown: A Simple Man's Take on the Current Production Model

  • Prior to European contact, the central plains were tallgrass prairie, a very diverse, healthy & sustainable ecosystem.
  • Tilling & monoculture destroyed all that for a few year's gain.
  • Less diversity -> less photosynthesis -> less liquid carbon -> less carbon storage -> less water storage
  • We created weather extremes where previously there was relative stability.
  • Livestock on feedlots create problems that can't be addressed in that context.
  • The FSA & RMA (but notably not NRCS) propagate this dysfunctional status quo.
  • Mycorrhizal fungi are the most misunderstood aspect of agriculture.
  • Capped soil is "basically a hydroponic system without the water."
  • Low nutrient -> synthetic fertilizer -> weeds -> herbicides -> mineral deficiencies -> fungal diseases -> fungicide
  • Pesticide -> decline in pollinators -> decreased production
  • Pesticide -> decline in predators -> increased pests
  • The current production model is all about killing.
  • What matters is how you see things, not how you do them. Regenerative management requires ecosystem understanding.
    1. use the least possible amount of mechanical disturbance.
    2. keep "armor" on the soil: crop residue and cover crops.
    3. maximize diversity: what he calls the "chaos garden," intercropping cover crops with one or more cash crops
    4. Keep living roots in the soil as much of the year as possible to optimize solar collection: seed anything you don't currently have growing
    5. Animal impact: let livestock do what they do best, which is mob grazing.
      • Gabe's rotation: cow-calf pairs, stockers, sheep, pigs, chickens. Pigs are the most profitable.
  • Topsoil depth using this strategy has increased form 3" to 14" from 1993 to 2013.

Dr. Christine Jones: Soil Carbon: the Mycorrhizal connection

  • Fencerows are the last refuge of diversity & helathy soil on "conventional" farms.
  • Light hitting bare soil creates heat, but photosynthesis is a cooling (endothermic) process. The faster a leaf is photosynthesizing, the cooler it is relative to the surrounding air.
  • Plants don't "take nutrients from the soil," they make soil (at any rate, functioning polycultures do).
    • Plants quickly deplete nutrients in their immediate surroundings.
    • Continued nutrition comes from the ecosystem of microbes that mine inorganic nutrients when soil is made.
    • So nutrients are leaving the farm with crops, but thousands of tons of inorganic nutrients are in the ground.
  • Nutritional needs are met by soil microbes -- the world's most productive ecosystems have no nutrient inputs, and in fact produce less if inputs are applied to them.
  • Some plants (notably brassicas) don't support mycorrhizae, so don't monocrop with those. Sunflowers, squash, and peas support mycorrhizae more than average.
  • The Spanish explorers found 3-sisters cropland stretching a mile wide and 5 miles long.
  • Endomycorrhizae cannot be seen in photos due to being inside roots, so all photos of mycorrhizae are of ectomycorrhizae.
  • Today's food is less nutritious (in minerals) than ever in history.
    • notably in copper, which is the most common catalyst for biological reactions, so copper deficiency causes malnutrition
    • Magnesium deficiency is so common in Australia, the ERs put patients on Mg drip before the paperwork is even started.
    • This is coupled with higher chemical residues on produce than ever: People who eat more industrially-grown fruits & vegetables consume more industrial chemicals than those who eat less produce!
    • The official explanation is that increased yield dilutes nutrients, but healthy soil grows nutritious crops.
  • Calcium deficiency can occur even on limestone-derived soil if the soil is not healthy.
  • Soil is dirt that's been in contact with plant roots. Plants are what makes soil. Bare soil destroys it.
    • Photosynthesis -> roots & microbes -> soil
    • This was understood prior to 1940 and the Green Revolution. Misunderstanding since then: soil -> plants -> animals
    • Chemical soil tests are bogus because plants use a totally different mechanism to get their nutrients!
    • 95-90% of nutrient acquisition is mediated by microbes.
    • 60-90% of nitrogen applied to soil is not taken up by plants. Even worse for phosphorus.
  • Endomycorrhizae are generalists and will link up to any roots, but ectomycorrhizae are species specific (most work only with trees)
  • Composting does not create humus! Just humic acid and other good stuff, but humus is more desirable because it's much more stable in the long term.
    • Book recommendation: The Farm as Ecosystem
    • Compost recipe recommendations to achieve 25-50-75 NPK
      • sticks, food scraps, leaves
      • sawdust, food scraps
      • wood chips and manure

Field exercises: 1953 Rd. M

  • John Lundgren: "exercise in predation"
  • Cover crop polyculture: sunflower, daikon, Sudan grass, lots of grass, mostly crabgrass
    • Jones & Brown's recommendation: mixed grazing ("flerd"), seed winter rye, vetch, daikon
    • Dr. Jones recommends against chisel plow: clay soil will just smear and seal the channels, and the trench will go anaerobic.
  • Abe Collins: soil infiltration
    • penetrometer is not very accurate; originally developed for determining whether the military could drive heavy vehicles over soft ground.
      • typically find hardpan 8" deep in agricultural fields. Theoretically roots can't exceed 300 psi to break hardpan.
    • infiltration rings: test how long it takes 1" of water to disappear into the ground.
      • keep adding 1" at a time to find the saturation point.
    • "terrace channel" is a regional name for a swale slightly off contour
      • Collins feels mechanical contouring of the landscape is a mistake because it disrupts the soil profile; focus instead on soil aggregates.
    • Collins's suggestion: rye & vetch cover crop in fall, soy in spring.

Jonathan Lundgren: Recap of field activities

  • Neonicotinoid insecticides are now widespread in organic crops and non-crop plants like milkweed.
  • RNAI genetic pesticide interferes with RNA-creating proteins; lots of potential to inadvertently affect unintended species, e.g. bees.
  • DDT was initially found to be safe because we asked the wrong questions during testing. We're still asking the wrong questions.
  • Transformational change doesn't come from the top down.
  • Lundgren is starting a nonprofit research company to serve farmers and beekeepers.
  • Needs everyone's support: Ecdysis, Blue Dasher Farm, in SD. (seems to be DOA)

Gabe & Christine on grazing land

  • Abe Collins says the ground has massive compaction, 600-900 psi with a pan at 8-9", recommends subsoiling 2x in one year, above and below the pan.
  • But Christine says keyline plowing has not delivered on its promise in Australia. Grazing is more dependably effective. Recommends adding alfalfa & clover to the existing mix.
  • "I farm a lot of heavy clay soil, and you'll wear out a good tractor doing work that ryegrass will do for you in 8 months."
  • After intense grazing, what follows is legumes (clover, etc.), early succession.
  • The Flint Hills are overburned! --audience member Pete Ferrell. Christine confirms aboriginal burning was very different in quality & quantity than European burning.
  • All commercial seed in Australia is treated with fungicide. Saved (untreated) seed develops mycorrhizal associations much more quickly.

Gabe: Regenerating Thin Stands with Fall Season Biennials

  • Winter triticale & hairy vetch primarily, radishes, rye, Sudan grass
  • Mob grazing with cow/calf pairs, leaving the bottom 4" or so of grass intact
  • Reseed with diverse (20+ species) seed mix
  • Infiltration rate down to 9 seconds, 2nd inch 16 seconds, down from over an hour at the start!
  • Rye & Sudan grass very effective (with grazing) at suppressing weeds.
  • Palatability of hay: winter wheat > triticale > rye

Gabe: The Next Generation, a case study on how to pass on a farm to your heirs

  • Image removed.Family Limited LLP includes all ranch assets (in North Dakota)
  • transition of ownership is 5% per year over 20 years
  • On average 14% of food dollar goes to the farmer, so set up an LLC for direct marketing. The LLC purchases crops from the LLP and resells them, with profit for each company.
  • Average cost to raise a cow $1231, sold to the LLP for $2000, sold retail for $856 profit.
  • Livestock dogs are more profitable than cattle & sheep.
  • Hogs are even more profitable at $1181/hog retail profit, $1347 total profit.
  • Eggs: net profit per week of $701 (seasonal)
  • see photo at right: multiple income streams, all unsubsidized.
  • Built their own abattoir, working on a poultry processing facility.
  • Downsizing land because understocked: intensive stacking of enterprises can support a family on 20 acres, maybe a little more.
  • Got here because of bad crop years farming conventionally, lost all crops, started again without synthetics.
  • Interns are contractors, not employees, learning to run their own farms so they can become independent.

Christine: Pasture cropping in Australia

  • Sow into dormant warm-season perennial grass in the fall, grow over winter (summer is too hot).
  • Case study: Colin Seis in NSW planted oats into bare, saline soil.
  • "When stock come onto pasture, you shouldn't be able to see their knees, and if you can see their feet when they're coming off, it's too short."
  • Both carbon & nitrogen dramatically increased, as well as all other nutrients, including trace elements.

Christine & Gabe: final Q&A

  • Transitioning from synthetics: recommend the Haney test. Scale down synthetics 50% at a time. Try it for 5 years before going back.
  • Fuller's farm has exteremely high phosphorus due to nearby feedlots. Recommend exporting alfalfa.
  • Humic molecule has a fixed ratio of nutrients no matter what, including aluminum, which is toxic.
    • 60% carbon, 6-8% nitrogen, 1-2% phosphorus, .8-1.5% sulfur, 30% aluminum & iron.
  • Soil microaggregates create anaerobic conditions for nitrogen fixation, even when no legumes are present.
  • Grasses put a lot of energy into soil, but trees put it primarily into wood. Lignification is very similar to soil building.
    • but trees & grasses benefit each other via the mycelial net.